What can Philosophy of Religion Offer to the University?


Here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org, we are asking philosophers of religion to tell us what philosophy of religion can offer to the modern university, considered either as a whole or through the lens of one or more university disciplines. Our blog is full of fascinating contributions of this kind.

Last year we witnessed a fabulous response to our challenge to look inwards and say what our field is and does, and we’ll soon present our analysis of those creative blog contributions. This year we are looking outwards as well as inwards, asking philosophers of religion to tell us how our field can impact the university or specific university disciplines.

For this theme, as for last year’s theme, we prefer to ask and listen rather than stipulate and define; it’s how we live up to our intention to speak for the entire unruly world of philosophy of religion. Ultimately we hope to analyze the themes in these blog entries and present our findings to you.

So read the blog entries and learn about philosophy of religion in the modern university from the experts who work in the field.

Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of PhilosophyOfReligion.org.

Mariana Alessandri on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

alessandriMariana Alessandri is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. We invited her to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

A letter to my 14-year old niece, Hannah, who still knows that stories can be true—

Dear Hannah,

In my last letter I suggested that humans would be nothing without stories, and that philosophy’s job is to rummage through the different parts of a story to see if and how they fit together with other stories. The philosophy of religion seems paradoxical to people who think that religion means believing and philosophy means not believing, but philosophers and religious people alike believe in certain things and not in others. We all believe in something, but the philosophy of religion helps us to become cognizant of the fact that there exists a world of mixed-up stuff to rifle through and reflect upon before we go on believing in it.

Ludwig Feuerbach wrote that religion belongs to the realm of emotion rather than reason. If he is right, then we must use our reason to judge the emotions, to make sure that they are sympathetic toward the right things—the things that bring us closer to honesty, goodness, truth, virtue, thinking—rather than the wrong things—the things that take us away from the right things or that want us to worship money, possessions, reputation, etc. This is where the modern University comes in.

In four years you will go to college. In a way, I am sorry for you, because when I went to college I felt completely free to study what I found interesting. I was not concerned with how I would make a living. I fell in love with philosophy and the philosophy of religion and thought about them for four solid years. Later, I went back to school because I wanted to think some more. And again to do more thinking. But today, it seems that the modern university (perhaps what makes it modern) believes that every course you take should be in some way contributing to your future job. I am sure it was also like this in the past for some people, and in some institutions. In any case, it is important to choose a school that still values thinking in the context of the humanities and the liberal arts. One way to know if a school values thinking is to look at its Philosophy and Religious Studies departments. Are students encouraged to major or minor in humanities or the creative arts as well as business, engineering, biology, etc.? If so, it means that the college or university values thinking for its own sake and isn’t just pushing you into getting job-training. If not, be careful. Read more about the university. How does it try to “sell” itself to students? What words does it use to characterize itself? Does it sound like its mission is to get everyone a job as quickly as possible? Always be critical of anyone trying to sell you a degree rather than an education.

I believe that college should be a time of self-reflection, critical analysis, questioning your beliefs, and strengthening those that need strengthening. This is what the philosophy of religion does for the modern university. It allows us to step into the world of our most profound beliefs and doubts. It gives us the time and space we need to think about thinking and believing, and to make sure we are thinking about the things that are most important. Socrates said that he was sent by god to tell people that they were living wrongly—that they were too concerned with how they looked and what they wore and who thought what of them. He admonished them for being focused on their bodies and not their souls. In the philosophy of religion you will get to analyze not only the religious beliefs of the world but also your own soul. And the truth is that many of your other classes will feel like a race to the end, full of lots of projects and busy-work about subjects that you might not care about. I would love it if every class made you think about yourself and your beliefs in relation to the rest of the world, but that is just not the way it works. Talk to other students about which teachers make you inspect yourself and which are just there to collect your work. Gravitate toward the schools with the best reputation for teaching, for small classrooms, that have healthy humanities and creative arts departments, like Religious Studies, Philosophy, English, History, Music, Art, and Dance. These are topics you will enjoy because thinking and creating are enjoyable!

But of course thinking is also challenging. Especially thinking about your religious beliefs. If you don’t, though, they will never grow; if you never have to inspect them then you never get to choose them, to own them, to stand up to them and say yes (or no) to them. This is what the philosophy of religion offers to the modern university: it gives us a chance to study the wider world of religious beliefs in order to decide what we are going to believe in and what we are not going to believe in, as opposed to just going through life without examining our beliefs. It also gives us a chance for different faiths to talk to one another. In my first letter I said that a great philosopher of religion approaches religious stories generously, with reverence, and now I will add, sympathetically. We need philosophy of religion inside and outside of the University in order to act as mediator between faiths that otherwise don’t know how to communicate with one another. Kierkegaard said that having faith means running the risk of not being intelligible to anyone except God, and philosophers of religion go out of their way to try to understand the actions of religious people that are often dismissed by people who are not sensitive to this fact. The Philosophy of Religion should be a subject offered in every university, because it gives young people like you time and space to decide what you believe, as well as the ability to communicate with people who believe different things from you.

Donald Blakeley on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

BLAKELEY BioPicDonald Blakeley is emeritus professor of philosophy at California State University, Fresno and adjunct lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Religions make claims about the most important things. They aim to provide guidance on the basis of their assumed truths and values. People learn the importance of religious beliefs and values in their particular family, social, geographical and historical settings. Few have the opportunity to learn about other religions. Individual religions have no incentive to encourage the learning of other religions. As a result, people generally are ill equipped to make informed judgments not only about their own religious beliefs but also about the beliefs and practices of other religious and non-religious worldviews.

The modern university can help address this important deficit condition by providing instruction that focuses on religion as a subject matter deserving serious multi-disciplinary attention. Typically, departments of anthropology, sociology, history, psychology, philosophy, and others offer such classes. Sometimes these disciplines are included in a religious studies department.

The availability of such educational instruction by experts in their various fields is important in order to develop a well-informed appreciation of the enormous and varied contributions that have been made by religions. Learning to be religious is not part of the agenda of academic teaching. But learning about what it means to be religious, becoming informed about beliefs, values, and practices of major religions, is an important aspect of learning how life can be understood and lived.

Since religions involve the most basic and intimate aspects of personal and social life, care in learning how to reflect upon, compare, and assess such life options would seem to be of utmost importance to everyone. Additionally, as beneficial as religions may be, they can also be dangerous. Dogmatic single-mindedness can find sanctification in special experiences or scriptural resources and assume exclusive certitude. In extreme cases, this can result in destructive campaigns and horrifying atrocities that have and continue to wreak havoc on this planet. Familiarity with other religions can help to reduce misunderstandings that lead to suffering and disruption in personal, social, and international affairs.

What such university-based educational opportunities provide is a safe, disciplined, and informed environment that encourages independent thinking. Discussions can explore the meanings, ways of reasoning, and values of different religions and advance skills in disciplined clarification of agreements and disagreements. Religious beliefs are deserving of cautious and critical examination of the most rigorous and well-informed sort. Considering the value of a knowledgeable populace, it is surprising that the societal settings which encourage the development of competence in the analysis and communication of religious ideas are so rare.

Religion(s) will face unprecedented challenges in the future. Forms of on-line access to information about religions certainly increase the opportunity for learning which is not restricted to local sources. Other prominent challenges include advances in the comparative study of belief systems, scientific cosmology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, robotics, medicine, and environmental studies. Religions can hardly escape the consequences of these contributions. Transformations will surely result. Students need to be provided adequate information about such matters generally and as these have an impact on religion.

Because anyone can all-too-easily become a duped adherent of some way of understanding things, educational institutions should function as a resource to strengthen and equip people with tools to help protect them from their own vulnerabilities. A good and responsible society, with its educational institutions, cannot afford to ignore ignorance and inadequately informed beliefs even as it affirms the right of everyone to exercise freedom of religion (thought, belief, conscience). As the saying might go: A well-informed citizenry requires the development of a robust disposition to encounter and reflect on religious belief claims in adept and respectful ways. Social discourse and social media should be supportive of occasions where informed interchanges on such matters can take place. In ideal conditions, this project of “religious education” should begin in early childhood and be a widely held social-political commitment. The modern university should exemplify this mission at advanced levels of instruction.

‘Philosophy of religion’ can be understood in various ways. (#1) Every religion expresses itself in a set of convictions. Whatever forms these may take, that assemblage of information functions as its way of thinking about things, i.e., its philosophy.

(#2) Religious beliefs can be formulated on the basis of different philosophical perspectives on religion such as realist (foundationalist), phenomenological, pragmatic, existential, symbolic, mystical, or fideist.

(#3) ‘Philosophy of religion’ might come in forms such as Gandhi’s, the Dalai Lama’s, or al Ghazali’s philosophy of religion. These would be constructive philosophical interpretations of religion or interpretations of the philosophical significance of religion. Bits and pieces of such perspectives can show up pretty much anywhere, e.g., from novels, poems, films, editorials, to cartoons and jokes.

(#4) In an educational setting, these approaches are part of the content to be examined by the discipline of philosophy. It proceeds without depending on commitments to any religion. It takes an etic or outside approach to its subject matter.

Philosophy of religion (in sense #4) focuses on religious worldviews/belief systems and their distinctive ideas in order to understand and evaluate what is being maintained. Exposition and critical assessment rely on empirical and formal (conceptual, logical, rational) considerations. Major concepts (e.g., God, Brahman, Dao, Buddha Nature, Spirit Power) are interlinked with numerous epistemic (knowledge, belief, faith), linguistic (meaning, reference), existential and moral (life, death, love, freedom, justice) issues. Anything goes, as a starter, but everything is subject to a variety of standards (verification, consistency, coherency, comprehensiveness), with such standards themselves requiring justification.

The general aim of philosophy of religion is to engage in a skillful, transparent, fair, welcoming, cooperative examination of religious beliefs and values. Because religion has been and continues to be important worldwide, a resourceful and judicious handling of these matters is imperative.

The goal of producing an educated person who is able to function resourcefully in the world composed of very diverse peoples and cultures requires the capacity to reflect perceptively and knowledgeably when encountering religious beliefs and practices.

The modern university, tending as it should to the best interests of its students, has much at stake in its support (or lack thereof) of programs that address religion in educationally responsible ways.

Peter Forrest on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

pforrestPeter Forrest is Professor of Philosophy at The University of New England, Australia. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy is dangerous, philosophy of religion especially so. But it also has much to offer if done the right way.

The danger of philosophy is illustrated by the charge against Socrates, corrupting youth. I imagine he corrupted by confusing, which is better than the indoctrination that can pass for academic philosophy. The undermining of young people’s beliefs on politics, ethics, or religion is a serious matter, whether it is achieved by snide remarks, laughter at naivety or, in Socrates’s case, bullying into confusion. Students who believe in guardian angels, possible reincarnation as a non-human animal or that the universe was created by God less than 10,000 years ago are mistaken, but if these are cherished beliefs they deserve gentle treatment. I recall the story of a philosopher, whom I otherwise respect, asking a student why she believed in God and on receiving the reply that she had faith, described that response as ‘wanking’. Not the right approach. But what is the right approach? In the university where I used to teach, the topic was treated by asking students to read William Clifford’s  ‘The Ethics of Belief’, and William James’ ‘The Will to Believe’ and then discuss these papers in a tutorial. Robust opposition from fellow students does not do violence the way derision from a tutor would.

This example suggests how we should teach philosophy especially when philosophical reflection impacts immensely important beliefs. Maybe selection of possible topics would be suggested with the students and it may be made plain just how many need to be studied, and a selection of readings provided. Then the tutor should aim to moderate discussion as well as promoting intellectual rigor. I expect the tutor to make her or his own position clear, but not seek to convert or de-convert.

Even given this sort of cautious approach there is still the problem of not providing the readings that exhibit the strongest arguments. And there is the further problem that the pursuit of fairness so qualifies assertions, so explores every corner of the debate, that the students become disillusioned with philosophy, judging it a degenerate intellectual exercise. Being a fair-minded conscientious but effective teacher of philosophy of religion is the hardest job in academia.

Why, then, teach philosophy of religion in universities? Because of the dangers, the university is a good place to engage in philosophy. For it conserves a threatened tradition of high academic standards. These are required in the humanities generally and philosophy in particular because of the risk of doing things wrong. So if taught at all, philosophy of religion must be taught in universities.

The justification for philosophy, especially on the more sensitive topics such as religion, is that, for whatever reason people often do ask themselves, “Well, what is the truth about religion?’ We should not force the young to ask that question by quoting the Socratic bullshit about t­he unexamined life not being worth living. (The unexamined degree is not worth giving but that is another matter). But often the young ask these questions and often older people enroll in university courses precisely because they have come to ask these questions. And in this context the university setting is of great value for two reasons. The first is that it locates the discussion in a tradition in which we can converse not merely with our peers but within a community of thinkers both present and past. The second is that many of those thinkers are somewhat obscure and help is required to understand the relevance of what they have to say.

In summary philosophy of religion deserves a place in the University curriculum because of the role it plays once students start to question their cherished beliefs, religious or anti-religious, but it should come with warnings: adult material; some participants may find this threatening; intellectual nudity.

Douglas Allen on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

webDouglas-Allen-PortraitDouglas Allen is Professor of Philosophy at The University of Maine. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In answering the question of what the philosophy of religion offers to the modern university, it seems to me that one must engage in the difficult preliminary work of clarifying at least three key, confusing terms: the philosophy of religion, religion, and the modern university.

First, what is this “philosophy of religion” that may have something to offer the modern university? At an earlier time in what dominated the history of philosophy in the West, it seemed easier to define the traditional discipline and approach of philosophy of religion. Especially in the twentieth century, such dominant agreement and clarity have been shattered. Influential philosophers not only maintain that traditional proofs for the existence of God or solutions to the Problem of Evil are inadequate, but, more radically, that the traditional normative concerns of the philosophy of religion are based on linguistic confusion, category mistakes, and are meaningless. In my own work, I explore whether a more phenomenological approach in philosophy, in formulating the phenomenology of religion, could allow us to suspend those normative metaphysical and theological judgments and provide a more adequate basis for a philosophy of religion.

In addition, with greater exposure to and appreciation of the significance of the religious and spiritual phenomena of Asia, of indigenous peoples, and of other nonwestern cultures, one’s philosophy of religion increasingly expresses a recognition of pluralism and diversity, of hidden and camouflaged meanings, of complexity and contradiction. Therefore, it is a legitimate question as to whether there is even such a thing as “the philosophy of religion,” or whether we are examining complex, open-ended, diverse philosophies of religion.

Second, what is the subject matter, religion, of philosophy of religion? Once again, at an earlier time, it seemed easier to define religion in the dominant philosophy of religion in the West. Scholars typically assumed an essentialized concept of religion, usually formulated in Abrahamic, monotheistic terms of Judaism, usually Christianity (Judaeo-Christian usually versions of Christian), and occasionally Islam. Today, not only do we recognize that the terms religion and religions are much vaguer and more pluralistic and diverse, but we struggle with anti-essentialist and anti-universalizing challenges of relativism and of postmodernism, gender and ethnic and postcolonial studies, and other developments in recent decades.

Is there such a thing as “religion”? Does the philosophy of religion study religion as something that has defining characteristics, which allow us to distinguish religious from nonreligious phenomena and that have some objective and universal meaning? Or does the philosophy of religion study religion as a more dynamic, open-ended process of diverse subject matters without clearly defined structures and meanings?

Third, what is the modern university for which philosophy of religion may offer something? There was a post-Enlightenment view in the West that dominated conceptions of the modern university. The liberal arts and humanities, including my discipline of philosophy, were central to conceptions of the nature and function of the modern university. The study of religion at the modern nonreligious university was often regarded with suspicion, as if this were something premodern that lacked the rigor and objectivity of modern disciplines,

What is the situation today? As is well documented, the liberal arts and humanities, which usually include philosophy of religion, are increasingly under attack, underfunded, marginalized, with drastic cuts in faculty and programs, and often regarded as largely irrelevant to the modern university. That modern university is increasingly a corporatized university, which, using the post-Eisenhower conception of Senator Fulbright, is an integral part of the military-industrial-academic complex. Those with economic, political, and military power define the ends, and universities demonstrate that they can provide the means and are good investments.

Does this mean that the future of philosophy of religion in the modern corporatized university rests on convincing huge corporations that it can provide analyses of other religions and cultures necessary for penetrating and controlling foreign markets and maximizing profits from foreign investments? Does this mean that the future of philosophy of religion rests on convincing the C.I.A., the N.S.A., and others with political and military power that it can provide an understanding invaluable for dominant views of national security and the winning of wars? Or, as I believe, can a different view of the nature and function of philosophy of religion provide understanding that involves resistance to such developments in the modern university?

What we find today is multiple philosophies of religion or religious phenomena, highly diverse, situated, in need of contextualization, with both overlapping shared characteristics but also specific irreducible features. Some philosophers of religion in the modern university will do specialized research on specific religious perspectives. Others will bring multiple perspectives into complex dynamic relations, emphasizing encounter and dialogue and how our understanding of the other can serve as a catalyst for broadening and deepening our own understanding.

In assessing what philosophy of religion may offer the modern university, we can appreciate that the key terms of “philosophy of religion,” “religion,” and “modern university” resist closure and are open to creative contestation and development. The critical study of religion in the modern world remains important and exceedingly practical, as, for example, when we try to understand why the fastest growing religions seem to embrace a radical rejection of much of modernity and the modern university or why there is so much religious violence in the contemporary world. And philosophy of religion remains important and exceedingly practical for the modern university because philosophical reflection, on religious and other phenomena, is essential for critical examination and reasoning, for formulating general structures and relations, and for arriving at evaluations and judgments that are an integral part of any understanding.

Stanley Tweyman on “What is Philosophy of Religion?” part 2

stweyman-cStanley Tweyman is University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at York University, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The topic of God’s benevolence is discussed in Parts 10 and 11 of David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion[i]. Cleanthes is the speaker who, in Part 10, seeks to establish God’s benevolence in conjunction with God’s infinite power, or (when this hypothesis runs into difficulties) in conjunction with God’s finitely perfect power in Part 11. Philo is the one who argues against these views. While Philo argues against each hypothesis, where God’s benevolence is conjoined with some consideration of God’s power, nowhere in the text does Philo provide a proof that God is not benevolent. In this blog, I intend to show that Philo does, in fact, have such a proof, although the proof is not to be found directly in the actual words spoken by Philo in these two Parts of the Dialogues. Allow me to explain by way of analogy.

Pentimento is an art form, in which an underlying image has been painted over[ii]. In this blog, I propose to show that there is a Pentimento-type structure in Parts 10 and 11 of the Dialogues, and that it is only when we go to the underlying structure of the text that we discover Hume’s proof that God is not benevolent. Of course, Hume is not painting a picture, and, therefore, there is no underlying image. However, there is an underlying logical structure to Hume’s argument, and it is here that we learn Hume’s proof denying divine benevolence. This is the Pentimento effect in Parts 10 and 11.

The aim of the Dialogues is to determine whether the design of the world enables us to infer anything about the attributes of the divine designer. In Part 10, Cleanthes maintains that the best hypothesis for explaining the moral character of the world is that the designer is infinitely powerful and benevolent. Philo argues against this hypothesis, maintaining that an infinitely powerful benevolent designer would produce a world that is all good, and, therefore, totally devoid of evil. However, all speakers agree that evil does exist in the world, as well as good[iii], thereby forcing a shift in Cleanthes’ position in Part 11.

Cleanthes is adamant about supporting divine benevolence throughout the discussion, but in Part 11 he is willing to give up the claim of God’s infinite power, and conjoin divine benevolence with God’s finitely perfect power: “A less evil may then be chosen, in order to avoid a greater: Inconveniences be submitted to, in order to reach a desirable end: And in a word, benevolence, regulated by wisdom, and limited by necessity, may produce just such a world as the present”. (D.161) On this account, natural evil is due to the interactions of natural objects and forces, even  though the latter were put into the world by the God for good: in short, God permits evil to occur, rather than causing evil to occur. God designs the best world He is able to design, but given that God’s power is limited, that some evil will enter the world is unavoidable. Further, since God is never an underachiever in producing good in the design of the world (God is finitely perfect), whatever evil does exist in the world, God is unable to remove or correct, as any attempt at removing or correcting the evil in the world, would actually make the world worse, not better. Philo strongly disagrees with Cleanthes’ position, by arguing that the four natural causes of evil in the world – the introduction of pain into the world; conducting the world by general laws; the great frugality, with which all powers and faculties are distributed to all sensible creatures; the inaccurate workmanship of all the springs and principles throughout nature – are neither necessary nor unavoidable[iv]. In Part 10, Cleanthes gives up the claim of God’s infinite power to save the hypothesis of God’s benevolence; in Part 11, Cleanthes is prepared to give up the claim of God’s finitely perfect power to save the hypothesis of God’s benevolence.  But, at no point in his analysis, does Philo provide an argument for denying divine benevolence. As stated earlier, my view is that Philo does have a proof that God is not benevolent, which is based on his critique of Cleanthes’ two hypotheses of divine infinite power and benevolence and divine finitely perfect power and benevolence, and which can be discerned, once the logic of these positions is understood. This is the philosophical equivalent of the Pentimento strategy I introduced at the beginning of this blog.

Using ‘B’ to stand for ‘God is benevolent’ and ‘I’ to stand for ‘God’s power is infinite’, the following captures Cleanthes’ position at the conclusion of Philo’s critique of his positions in Parts 10 and 11, namely, Philo has established that no consideration of God’s power, when conjoined with the claim of God’s benevolence, can account for the good and evil in the world. And since Cleanthes insists on God’s benevolence, Cleanthes must give up any consideration of God’s power in accounting for the good and evil in the design of the world.

Logically, employing modus ponens, we get the following:

B ⊃ ~ (I ∨~I)


∴~ (I ∨~I)

Since ~ (I ∨~I) is self-contradictory and (I ∨~I) is necessarily true, we can construct the remainder of Philo’s argument against Cleanthes’ view of divine benevolence by employing modus tollens:

B ⊃ ~ (I ∨~I)

(I ∨~I)

∴~ B

Notice that these logical proofs are not found in the text, but rather they constitute the logical underpinning of Philo’s argument against divine benevolence. This is the Pentimento- like effect in these two Parts of the Dialogues. It should be clear that Hume has not offered a free standing proof that God is not benevolent. The proof that God is not benevolent follows from Cleanthes’ insistence on the benevolence of God, and his willingness, in the light of Philo’s criticisms, to deny that God possesses either infinite power or finitely perfect power.

Part of the nature of the philosophy of religion involves putting forth arguments about God, and assessing the strengths and weaknesses of these arguments. But our analysis in this blog reveals an additional feature in the area of philosophy of religion, namely, to determine the consequences of a position that is put forth about God – consequences which the proponent of the original position does not welcome. In this blog, I have shown that Parts 10 and 11 of the Dialogues can be understood as possessing an underlying logic, which, ultimately, can be used against Cleanthes’ position regarding divine benevolence. But we can go further than this in the case of the Dialogues: in fact, the structure of the Dialogues generally involves examining the consequences of Cleanthes’ position, although this examination does not always involve a Pentimento-like approach. In this regard, it is worthwhile noting, in a passage in Part 2, what Philo says to Demea (the third speaker in the dialogue) about his, i.e. Philo’s, objections to Cleanthes’ position: “You seem not to apprehend, replied Philo, that I argue with Cleanthes in his own way; and by showing him the dangerous consequences of his tenets, hope at last to reduce him to our opinion.”(D.111) In short, Hume’s Dialogues, as a whole, can be seen as exemplifying this approach in philosophy of religion.

[i] All references to David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, are taken from David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, (from the original handwritten manuscript), edited and with an Introduction by Stanley Tweyman, Routledge (London and New York), July 1991. Revised Second Edition, issued by Caravan Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan, by arrangement with Routledge, 2000. Third edition, re-issued by Routledge, as part of their Philosophy of Religion Series, February 2012. This book will also be reissued in paperback as part of the Routledge Paperbacks Direct programme, and as an e-book.

[ii]We need not discuss possible motivations of the artist for painting in this style.

[iii] See, especially, pages 152-56.

[iv] For purposes of our discussion, we need not elaborate on Hume’s analysis of the four causes of evil in the world, and why God is unable to increase the quantity of good in the world, and diminish the amount of evil.


Clayton Crockett on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

clayton crockettClayton Crockett is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Central Arkansas. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In many respects, Immanuel Kant defines the theoretical situation for knowledge in the modern university. In his three Critiques, Kant accomplishes a critique of science or philosophy (pure reason), a critique of morality (pure practical reason), and a critique of art (aesthetics) that sets up an idealized model for modern knowledge. This model is institutionally implemented in neo-Kantian terms, as these sciences are divided into disciplines that are then positivized and historicized. In The Conflict of the Faculties, Kant defends the lower faculty of philosophy, which represents what becomes known as the liberal arts, against the claims of the higher faculties of theology, medicine and law. The higher faculties are the professional schools, that threaten to subsume philosophy, humanities and the liberal arts.

As the contemporary university becomes increasingly corporatized, disciplines and areas of knowledge that are less directly profitable get marginalized. The humanities, liberal arts, and what is sometimes called general education are downsized as administrators, politicians, parents and even students emphasize the value of college as a vocational training program. Students matriculate into degree programs that presumably prepare them for jobs in a precarious global economy. Philosophy and religious studies are not popular areas of study in this context, not to mention philosophy of religion.

It is significant that Kant was unable to develop a critique of religion; he viewed religion as a subset of morality, as a form of practical reason. Modern religion should function within “the limits of reason alone.” It is Hegel who articulated a modern philosophy of religion, because for Hegel religion dialectically leads to philosophy. Religion is a kind of picture-thinking, a representation that shows the true but must give way to the pure reason of the Concept (Begriff). Hegel’s teleology is problematic, but he helps historicize reason and philosophy even as he does so from a Eurocentric perspective. Adopting Freud’s idea of the return of the repressed, we could say that religion consistently returns throughout modernity to haunt reason’s desire to repress it.

A quote I often mention to my classes is one that was given by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013. He stated: “In fact, if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.” Despite the pressures to study something that appears more directly useful for a career, understanding the nature and role of religion in the world today is incredibly important and valuable. And this recognition of the value of studying religion occurs within a context where more and more potential employers are recommending that students study the humanities rather than business or STEM-related topics. Recent studies show that many entrepreneurs and CEOs of thriving corporations want students to study and major in humanities subjects.

In the humanities, or more specifically the academic study of religion, philosophy of religion has a crucial role to play. Unfortunately, due to the history of academic religious studies in the United States, philosophy of religion has been devalued in religious studies programs. Kerry affirms the importance of studying comparative religion. The predominant academic model of religious studies in the US today is the comparative world religions curriculum, which replaces the Protestant seminary model for the study of religion. During much of the twentieth century, the study of religion took place under the guise of the Protestant seminary model, and this curriculum continues to influence the field because most of the major US universities have seminaries attached or connected to them. According to a seminary model, religious studies is primarily Christian, and consists of categories like scripture, ethics, church history, and theology. The secular comparative world religions model replaces and updates the Protestant seminary model.

The ascendance of a comparative world religions curriculum for religious studies is mostly a good thing, because it transcends Christian parochialism, but there is one major downside. The world religions model adopts social scientific methodologies from the social sciences. These methodologies are crucial to the academic study of religion, but they leave out any explicitly philosophical approach. Most of the time, philosophy is associated, explicitly or implicitly, with theology. And theology is what the comparative world religions model explicitly opposes. Many scholars of religion demand the expulsion of theology in order for religious studies to be a viable academic discipline. At the same time, the construction of what we call world religions is not neutral, and has a complex history that Tomoko Masuzawa explores in her important book The Invention of World Religions.

Today we can see the breakdown of a certain kind of modern secularism, defined as the delimitation of religion to a private sphere. The return of religion in political terms indicates what José Casanova calls a deprivatization of religion. The strict opposition between reason and religion, faith and knowledge, deconstructs. This is a crucial task for philosophical understanding, to make sense of what is sometimes called a postsecular world.

My contention is that whatever one thinks about theology and the postsecular, the elimination of philosophy from the academic study of religion is a huge loss. Philosophy of religion is vital to the study of religion, not just a subset of philosophical inquiry. We need an explicitly philosophical commitment to exploring the persistent phenomenon of religion, a word that Jacques Derrida calls “the clearest and the most obscure” in his essay on “Faith and Knowledge.” Philosophy of religion studies the word, the meaning, the history, and the situation of religion as it expresses itself in the world today, which is integrated with everything that one works with, decides upon, and thinks about in life today, as Kerry affirms. The modern and contemporary university does not know how to properly value this form of thinking and understanding. But it is blind without it.

Stephen T. Davis on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

stephen davisStephen T. Davis is the Russell K. Pitzer Professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

There are of course Catholic and Protestant institutions of higher learning, but when I speak of “the modern University,” I mean secular academia as it presently exists in North America and Europe. And the fact is that religion seems to come in for little good press in those circles these days. There are doubtless many reasons for this phenomenon. Let me mention two.

First, religious people are criticized. Although lip service is usually paid to the fact that not all religious people are bad, nevertheless we live in a time when Muslims are tarred with the brush of Islamic terrorism, Jews are associated with (what are considered by some to be) those imperialistic war-mongers the Israelis, and Christians (and especially conservative Catholics and Evangelical Protestants) are dismissed as narrow-minded, dogmatic, and homophobic deniers of science. These are the kinds of things that religion can do—so the University implies.

Second, religion conflicts with the dominant world-view of the University; we can call it Naturalism. This theory says: (1) the physical universe exhausts reality (everything that exists is atoms in motion); there are no souls, spirits, gods, or God; (2) no true natural laws can ever be violated; and accordingly (3) everything that occurs can in principle be explained by methods similar to those used in the natural sciences. Naturalists admit that there are things we cannot now explain, but that is because we do not know enough. The point is that there are no intractable mysteries, permanent anomalies, or divine miracles. In short, there is no room for God or (supernatural) religion in naturalism.

For these and doubtless other reasons, religion is a voice that seems to be unwelcome as part of the conversation in today’s University. It is largely ignored or deemphasized. We even see historians writing religion out of the past as much as possible—e.g., trying to explain the Civil Rights movement or even the Protestant Reformation in largely non-religious terms. Of course philosophy of religion cannot by itself reverse these trends, but I think it can do something.

But what exactly is the philosophy of religion? I understand it to be in large part the careful philosophical examination of religious claims. (Of course religion is not limited to religious beliefs or claims—there are religious practices, laws, attitudes, holidays, buildings, forms of government, etc., but the philosophy of religion, like all of philosophy, is greatly concerned with beliefs.) Its practitioners ask questions like:

  • Does God exist?
  • If God exists, why is there so much evil and suffering?
  • Is reincarnation true?
  • Is it ever rational to believe in something you cannot see or touch or prove?
  • Is one religion superior to others?
  • Does life have any transcendent meaning?

Although philosophers of religion usually take sides in such debates, the discipline of philosophy of religion is neither a philosophical defense of religious claims nor a philosophical attack on them.

What then can this discipline do in the current situation? I will mention two things. First, it can serve as an excellent way to introduce students to the larger discipline of which it is a part, philosophy. This is because the questions it deals with significantly overlap with traditional questions that are raised in the central branches in philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, logic, philosophy of mind, etc.). Moreover, many themes in the philosophy of religion can be found in the works of almost every great historical philosopher.

Second, and more importantly, it can show the contemporary University that there exists rational, rigorous, and painstaking examination of various important and fascinating religious claims and that there are highly intelligent people on both sides of such debates. Given not just its past but its present influence on human behavior in today’s world, religion ought to be a deep concern in academia. Religion isn’t just obscurantist fundamentalists pontificating and fighting over nonsense. In religion, people try to make sense of their lives. That is something the University ought to be deeply interested in.

Stephen Clark on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

StephenRLClarkStephen Clark is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Liverpool University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Anything that human beings do is likely to interest philosophers, especially if what they do seems odd, unnecessary or irrational for a simply cost-benefit understanding: pure science, sex, or sport, for obvious example. The guddle of ritual practices, sacred sites and texts and people, that are popularly summed up as ‘religion’ is no exception. Why do people devote their energies to building churches, dressing up in wholly impractical garments, reading and re-reading ancient and often incomprehensible texts? Why do they need to imagine ‘other worlds’ or plan for their imagined afterlife (even if only to plan their funerals or their memorial tablets)?  Why do they feel (or pretend to feel) particular respect for ancestors, or the aged, or infants, or the insane? Why do they alternately revere and sacrifice particular animals? Why mark the changing seasons with stories and celebrations, or with fasts and floggings? Many similar questions can be asked about our common concern with ‘Art’ or ‘Sport’ or ‘Science’ or ‘Celebrity’. Why don’t we behave like sensible, ‘rational’ animals, seeking merely ‘natural’ goals by whatever convenient means?

There are at least two ways of practising ‘philosophy’. We may seek to analyse the ways that people actually behave: what is it to win a game, in any particular sport; what are the qualities that sportsmen value, or what their sins and failings? When is ‘cheating’ simply an acknowledged, proper, tactic (even if it is penalized when noticed), and when a sign of something deeply wrong, ‘unsporting’? These conversations may feed into the development of ‘sport’ in general, or particular sporting enterprises. The other way of ‘philosophising’ is to challenge the whole practice, requiring – for example – that sportsmen and their followers justify their strange devotion. Maybe they will succeed, and ‘sport’ at last seem ‘rational’ in whatever terms that audience prefers. Or maybe that audience will itself be challenged, and so come to see what strange assumptions – perhaps about the importance of ‘being serious’ or acting only for some non-sportive gain – they have been making, and should now abandon. Maybe all human life will come to seem ‘a game’, and skilled sportsmen only doing, more consciously and carefully, what everyone should do: preferring the effort of taking part, the beauty of the means, to any literal success.

The same split effort may be seen in dealing with ‘Religion’. One sort of philosopher will prefer to analyse what is said and done by particular ‘believers’, and discover (for example) whether the stories and the rituals have a coherent sense. Who and what is ‘saintly’? What does ‘piety’ require? What connections are there between ritual and moral rules (if any)? What is taken to be a sacred text, in any particular community, and what are the implications of its being thus ‘sacred’? What does omnipotence entail, or what does it mean to say that there is No Self? Another sort – or the same philosophers in other moods – may instead enquire into what external justification there is for this or another set of rules, rituals and stories. They may even wonder whether there is any such thing as ‘religion’: maybe that is only a term invented to associate many various activities that are all, perhaps, indulged ‘religiously’ (as we might say, ‘enthusiastically’ or ‘habitually’: with or without our genuine attention). Maybe ‘sacred’ is only a term employed by anthropologists or archaeologists to describe practices or objects whose ‘real’ use they have not yet discovered. In what sense, if any, is the Christian Bible, Jewish Torah, Muslim Koran a ‘sacred text’? Are the Vedas? Are the Homeric epics? Star Wars? Are the arguments of particular ‘religions’ (hypostatized as discrete entities, rather than simply as occasions when people are talking or acting ‘religiously’) of real significance, or are they meditation exercises, or quaint diversions from – and partial contributions to – the life of everyday? Can we conceive a world entirely without ‘religion’? – or is that very effort yet another example, exactly, of ‘religion’: the imagining of ‘another world’ than this, with other global priorities, to be achieved by carefully disinfecting our usual thoughts and feelings, in obedience to new texts and prophets?

Sport may turn out to be a metaphor for the ordinary lives even of those who did not think of themselves as ‘sporty’. Religion may also have a wider force than ‘irreligious’ philosophers imagine. Philosophers of Sport (whether descriptive or revisionist) need not themselves, in any ordinary sense, be sportsmen, but it may be presumed that they have some sympathy with sport, and some acquaintance with the actual practices and feelings of sportsmen and spectators. The same should be true for philosophers of ‘religion’. In practice it often seems that such philosophers have so little sympathy with ‘religion’ that they perennially miss the point: they come to the study, perhaps, from the more arcane regions of logic or epistemology – and are satisfied to pose logical puzzles, for example, about ‘omnipotence’ (as an attribute of the divine) or epistemological, about the source of ‘faith’, without asking what is important to ‘believers’. They may also be blind to their own convictions, habits and attractions, and so not realize how often their own devotion to a purely ‘rational’ account of things, their own intellectual ascesis, even their veiled contempt for those with another conviction is, exactly, of the form of (evangelical) religion! What effort is involved in keeping faith with Dawkins?

So what may ‘philosophers of religion’ chiefly contribute to the University? Any human enterprise, and especially those with major and sometimes catastrophic effects on everyone’s experience, deserves to be understood. But perhaps the chief contribution should be to hold a mirror up before the most cost-benefit, would-be ‘utilitarian’ and ‘realistic’ administrators, to remind them that their own assumptions, habits, goals, ways of life and thinking, are as much at the mercy of old stories and ancestral pieties as the most brash of familiar ‘fundamentalists’.

Donald Crosby on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

donaldcrosbyDonald Crosby is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Colorado State University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The term university connotes to me the idea of universality, meaning that the university has by its very nature an intense concern with what is universal or all-encompassing. It exists, that is to say, for the sake of what Aristotle called nous, theoria, or sophia: contemplative, reflective knowledge, vision, and wisdom. It also concerns itself with techné and phronēsis or practical skill and discernment, but always in the context of an encompassing and deeply informed inquiry into the many aspects of the world and of the appropriate place of human beings in the world. Its concern is not just with “how” but “why,” not just with getting things done but with what things ought or ought not to be done and why.

Among the university’s many important concerns is the role of religious questions, commitments, and institutions in the history of human civilizations and in the lives of individual human beings. This concern is partly addressed by fields of investigation such as religious studies and the history of religions, history in general, evolutionary biology, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. But these fields are primarily devoted to descriptive and causally explanatory accounts of the role of religion in human life. They may sometimes veer into normative evaluations of religion in general or of particular religious systems, ideas, or claims, but that is not their usual or principal function.

Should the normative task be left to confessional or apologetic spokespersons for particular religious traditions? I do not believe that these have a legitimate role in secular universities if their task is conceived as one of proselytizing on behalf of a particular religious point of without due consideration of other possible points of view. However, in light of the prominent place of religious institutions and religious persons in the history of human civilizations and cultures, a place that continues to this day, it is essential that some part of the university devote itself to thoughtful, critical, and fair-minded analysis of religious claims and counter-claims, of religious modes of symbolization and expression, of religious practices—both individual and social—and of religious questions and proposed answers to these questions that have haunted and beguiled humankind from its earliest days to the present.

These questions and answers are existential ones about how to live and what to commit one’s life to, how to envision one’s ultimate responsibilities and those of other humans in the world, and how to cope with the threats, uncertainties, sufferings, and seductions to evil in the world. The young who enter the university are often burdened with issues such as these and are in need of guidance on how to approach them and deal honestly, constructively, and creatively with them. Philosophy of religion can provide important kinds of assistance and insight in these respects. For that reason alone it should be recognized as an indispensable part of the university’s curriculum.

What sorts of person should teach philosophy of religion? I believe that such persons should meet at least the following ten requirements: (1) They should be thoroughly schooled in the history of religions. (2) They should be well trained in the history of philosophy. (3) They should be deeply sensitive to religious questions and concerns, not tone-deaf to them as some philosophers and some academicians in other fields may tend to be. (4) They should be receptive to what can be learned from and reflected on in a variety of religious traditions and not just in a single one. (5) They should have strong facility in philosophical questioning, reasoning, and thinking. (6) They should be knowledgeable about the central role of religious beliefs and practices in the history of civilizations. (7) They should be able effectively to communicate to their students religious and philosophical modes of thinking and their interrelations with one another. (8) They should be able to bring religious and secular visions of the world into constructive dialogue with one another. (9) They should be capable of helping students to put all of these ways of thinking and inquiring to effective use in developing their own outlooks on religious questions and their personal religious or secular ways of living in the world.  (10) Philosophers of religion should be actively involved in important kinds of original research and writing in their field. These ten requirements constitute a tall order of competency in philosophers of religion who teach and do research in the university. No one can hope to measure up to all of them in full or in equal measure, but they stand as critical standards and goals for teachers and researchers in the field of philosophy of religion.

My basic contention concerning the place of philosophy of religion in the curriculum of the university turns on the observation that religion has always been an important part of human history, human institutions, and individual human outlooks and practices, and that it is so today. Religion has admittedly sometimes been a force for evil as well as good in human history, but so have politics, economics, science, and technology. Great powers and achievements can be used for evil as well as for good. But religious questions and concerns are fundamental, far-reaching, and in the last analysis inescapable. They remain so in the perennial and ongoing human search for deep-lying orientation, obligation, and meaning. If universities are to be truly universal in the sense of addressing all of the basic areas of human consideration, thought, and practice, they should by no means neglect or minimize the philosophical study of religion and philosophical assessment of religious claims and ways of life.

Such study should give a prominent role to analysis and investigation of the truth or falsity of religious claims in particular religious systems, of how these claims relate to one another in the logic of each system, of how they connect with its symbolic expressions and practices of each system, and of how these elements compare with the claims, symbols, and practices of different religious systems. Philosophy of religion does not just offer neutral descriptions or portrayals of the claims, systems, and practices of various religions, nor does it typically seek for causal explanations of why they have persisted as intricate aspects of human life and experience—important as the latter two endeavors undeniably are. But these two endeavors can contribute to the work of philosophy of religion by providing descriptive phenomena and explanatory proposals for it to ponder.

Philosophy of religion richly deserves a seat at the table of the university’s offerings. Its contribution to the university is much more than a disposable luxury or optional add-on to an otherwise adequate university curriculum. Leaving it out of the curriculum would be analogous to failing to introduce a critical component in the preparation of a meal based on a favorite recipe. What would eggplant parmesan be without the bread crumbs or cheese? Philosophy of religion is a necessity in a university deserving of its name, and it is no less so than the currently touted and certainly important areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The university’s concern, properly conceived, is with the whole of life, and philosophy of religion makes an essential contribution to the character and range of this concern.